Protein is an essential nutrient for dancers, most notable is the role of protein in rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue. To learn more about this star macronutrient, check out this blog post. But how about protein supplements? While research supports the benefits of protein after exercise as it stimulates muscle protein synthesis, no evidence supports the use of protein powders, as a replacement for food, to enhance muscular response to training.
Should dancers add protein powder to their diet?
Generally, a food-first approach is encouraged as supplements are both questionable (from a safety perspective) and oftentimes, expensive. You can read more about the safety concerns of the supplement industry here. But in some instances, protein powders (and other protein supplements like protein bars) can be a reliable way to support a dancer’s recovery if busy schedules make it tough to incorporate adequate amounts of protein-rich foods throughout the day.
There is a common myth that the body can only absorb and utilize 20 grams of protein at one time. But this is not necessarily true. The amount of protein that a dancer’s body absorbs in one sitting will depend upon their individual needs. While not ALL of the protein in your shake may be utilized for muscle building, some can be used for other purposes like building hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.
Protein supplements: considerations
In regard to your options, there are countless! First, consider whether or not you’d like a plant-based or animal-based protein powder. From there, you’ll want to consider if other additives are included. Keep in mind that protein powders contain sweetener alternatives (stevia, monk fruit extract), artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, maltitol) & synthetic fibers (inulin, chicory root). These ingredients can cause stomach upset and discomfort for some dancers so you’ll want to either opt-out of these options, or trial small quantities (such as half a serving) at a time.
Common Plant-Based Protein Additives:
- Pea protein isolate
- Almond protein
- Pumpkin protein isolate
- Soy isolate
- Hemp protein
Common Animal-Based Protein Additives:
- Whey (milk-based)
- Casein (milk-based)
- Egg white
- Bone broth
Which protein powder is best?
Unlike most protein powders, whey protein is high in leucine, an amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Plant proteins, such as almond, soy, and pea are not as effective as whey, but can still provide beneficial effects on recovery. When compared to other plant-based protein powders, soy protein is a complete protein that contains all essential amino acids.
Collagen is another popular protein supplement that is often marketed for joint and skin health. Research remains mixed in regards to the benefits of collagen supplementation. Without needing to rely on expensive supplementation, we can incorporate a variety of foods that contain specific nutrients known to help boost our body’s natural production of collagen. Zinc, vitamin C, and copper all act as cofactors in the production of collagen. Also, avoiding behaviors that damage naturally occurring collagen (like smoking and excessive sun exposure) can help.
In regards to muscle recovery, collagen is not considered a complete protein. This means that, unlike whey or soy protein, a collagen supplement won’t provide us with all essential amino acids.
What should plant-based dancers consider?
A protein powder that contains a blend of different plant-based proteins (ie. soy protein/brown rice protein blend) might be beneficial to gain a broader spectrum of essential amino acids. You can utilize this to increase the protein content of your smoothie by adding a protein powder that contains at least 20 grams per serving.
Protein from supplements can add up quickly if you’re relying heavily on eating bars, shakes, and powders. Though sometimes helpful (especially in circumstances like this), protein powders shouldn’t replace opportunities for food. Utilizing a food-first approach is always encouraged and will be your most economical option long term. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods throughout the day (such as beans, lentils, poultry, fish, eggs, yogurt, nuts, and seeds) can meet a dancer’s protein needs without having to rely on expensive supplements. If you are considering a supplement, choose a third-party tested plant or whey protein powder and aim for no more than one supplement per day or a few per week.